Qi-Q3-smIan Hughes, Garry Duncan, Mark Johnson (New South Wales Regional Meeting), Gerard Guiton, Yoland Wadsworth (Victoria Regional Meeting).

Seeking truth has been at the heart of Quakerism since the birth of our movement. Do we bring the whole of our lives to this search? Are our Meetings fully engaged as whole living systems, or do we tolerate splits between religion and everyday life, sacred and secular, inner and outer? The Age of Enlightenment by reason and science, built upon such splits, has failed to live up to its promise. Although humans are now able to transmit information almost instantly round the world, put people on the moon and give people transplanted hearts, we face critical problems of loss of human community, overpopulation, global warming, destruction of rain forest, pollution and extinction of species, which are unintended consequences of so-called ‘progress’.

The inner and the outer

Australian Quakers seek a life-giving balance between inner spiritual practices and outer ethical actions (see 47 Backhouse Lectures, The Australian Friend March 2012). As Gerry Guiton points out, early Friends saw no essential difference between these. Both are expressions of the ‘Kingdom of God’ (Guiton, 2012). Like everyone else, Quakers are influenced by the culture we are immersed in and enact every day; a culture which can sever our inner experience from the outer world. In our Meetings for Worship we focus on inner spiritual experience and our Meetings for Worship for Business are mostly about the internal life of our Society. Many of us, as individuals, are also heavily engaged in various forms of outward action through AYM Committees, non-Quaker organisations, professional and community commitments. Should these be more fully embraced and welcomed into the life of our Local and Regional Meetings where they can contribute to a more holistic approach uniting our inner spiritual practices and outer ethical actions?

1: Acting

Direct experience of our inner selves and outer world are enmeshed and we make sense of our inner and outer experience in reflection. The first image illustrates this as two phases of inquiry: experience (E) and reflection (R). In other phases we communicate (C) our ideas and make plans with others, and act (A) on ourselves and the world. Experiencing and reflecting are inwards movements, like inhaling, while communication, planning and action are directed outwards, towards others and the world like exhaling.

This experience-reflect-communicate-act (ERCA) model is a simple way to talk about a complex reality. People engaged in action-inquiry in living systems often use something like it, such as the widely used plan-act-observe-reflect cycle in action research cycle, or the discover-dream-design-deliver appreciative inquiry cycle. The image helps us think about how we might become aware of a problem or discrepancy and then experience or observe (E) the situation, hear from people or gather information we think may be useful, and then reflect (R), interpret information, think critically, and make sense of the situation. We may conceive a new idea that we communicate (C) or develop into a plan, with others, that we may implement or experiment with action (A). We are then able to observe the outcomes of our action (E), reflect on whether this is useful or effective (R), and continue along the spiral. The real world is much more fuzzy and complex than this model, but the model is useful to remind us that all four phases should be part of our inquiry.

Image 1

2: Experiencing

We experience that we share the cycle of birth, growth, death and decay with plants and animals. In all biological systems we observe that the threshold event of birth is followed by an active, expansive phase of growth and development culminating in the threshold event of death, in turn followed by a passive, disintegrating phase of decay. Social systems are more complex and varied, but we observe and experience living system cycles in families, organisations, nations and so on. As empirical observation or as metaphor, we find this pattern of living systems cycles in very many situations. Possibly the earliest foundation of religion was about wondering what happens after death and before birth.

3: Making sense

The living systems cycle can be a way of reflecting and thinking more deeply and emergently. DNA provides a pattern for the cycle of birth, growth, flourishing, fruition and death in biological systems using a four digit code. We can use this as a metaphor for the cycle of living systems inquiry in repeated patterns or spirals of four phases (see Image 2).

Image 2

When we engage in living systems inquiry it is useful to plan the four phases in repeated cycles of experience, reflect, communicate, act then experience again and so on. In real life they tend to repeat in more complex sequences as illustrated in Image 2.

4: Communicating

John Heron (2006) discusses four ways of knowing: experiential, propositional, presentational and practical, no one of which can be successful by itself. In Western culture since the Enlightenment (about 350 years ago) propositional and presentational knowledge have been more highly valued than experiential and practical knowledge. This is another way of saying that reason, theory, and language have been dominant, while human inwards and outwards experience and practical ability became less highly regarded.

In a pragmatic rule-of-thumb, these four ways of knowing can be mapped onto the living systems inquiry cycle. They are shown in the table below together with typical inquiry questions and associated approaches to religious faith. We are suggesting this is a useful way of thinking and working. We cannot at this point in time agree about the placement of every item.

Inquiry cycle Experience (E)(observe) Reflect (R) Communicate (C)(Plan) Act (A)
Living cycle Flourishing, fruition to decay Decay to birth Birth to growth Growth to flourishing
Knowledge type Experiential
Presentationalknow-as Practicalknow-how
Typical question What did I/we observe, see, hear, sense, notice, feel, experience? What can I/we learn from this experience? What sense do I/we make of this? What can I/we do with this? How can I/we communicate this in words, actions etc? What do I/we intend or plan to do? What did I/we actually do? What sensory, practical, communicative and subtle skills did I/we use?
Four spiritualities Journey of devotion Journey of unity Journey of harmony Journey of works
Faith approach Naturalism, pantheism, mysticism. Rationalism, humanism, theology. Revelation, tradition, multi- & inter-faith. Active compassion, ethical action, piety.
Quaker location Daily life Meeting for Worship Meeting for Business Committees & agencies

The four spiritualities in the fifth row are based on work by Peter Tufts Richardson, which correspond in a loose way to knowledge types. The four faith approaches in the sixth row of the table are all represented among Quakers. Each has a different main mode of inquiry or source of knowledge. Naturalists and mystics emphasise their direct outer or inner experience; rationalists and theologians emphasise reason and critical thinking; traditionalists respect revelation and authority; and faith grounded in compassion arises from the need and possibility of relieving the suffering of others. Few if any real faith approaches fit neatly into one cell, and this analysis points to differing emphases rather than discrete types; but in our Local Meeting differing approaches may come to unity in a complex whole (or not).

In the final row, we try to indicate that Quakers tend to emphasise reflection and communication (including deciding) in our Local and Regional Meetings. On the whole, we manage our corporate action through Yearly Meeting Committees (including Friend’s School Board and QSA). Our daily life experience of the world is mostly outside formal Quaker contexts.

5: Acting, experimenting

Wahroonga Local Meeting has been experimenting for more than two years with a learning circle which meets once a month to support individual friends’ answer to George Fox’s question, ‘What canst thou say?’ A similar strategy is used by Central Coast NSW Worshipping Group in collaboration with local Churches to support action on the Charter for Compassion. These meetings use a living systems inquiry process, which we find very compatible with Quaker processes.

In ‘Living Experimentally’ circles, each participant has an individual living inquiry project, and answers questions for reflection each month. These are:
Intend: What did I intend to do since the last circle? (C)
Act: What did I actually do since the last circle? (A)
Observe: What did I see, observe or experience since the last circle? (E)
Reflect: What did I or what can I, learn from this experience? (R)
Ask: What specific help or support can the Living Experimentally Circle offer to me now?
Intend: What do I intend to do before the next meeting. (C)

Similar questions could be adapted in Local or Regional Quaker Meetings to support Quakers who are engaged in ethical action to more fully live the testimonies in AYM Committees or non-Quaker organisations.

6: Sharing experience and observation

The co-authors and many others have experience of working to understand and improve the living systems of which we are part. We see an emerging cultural transformation. It has several names, and we are not in complete agreement on its qualities or attributes, we see a move away from the mechanical dualism and reductionism of the Cartesian worldview, to an experience that we are co-participants in reality. This participatory worldview is grounded in knowing that we are part of the whole, rather than separated as mind over and against matter.

Stuart Kauffman in Reinventing the Sacred (2008) reverses the reductionist’s causal arrow with a comprehensive theory of emergence and self-organization that he says ‘breaks no laws of physics’ and yet cannot be explained by them. God, he says ‘is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere and human cultures’. John Heron shows how sacred science, in a participatory worldview, can bring disciplined scientific observation to bear on spiritual and subtle entities and topics (see review of Participatory Spirituality in this issue, and download your free e-book). In her practice of inquiry, Yoland Wadsworth links living systems cycles to cycles of human inquiry and action (2010), and Ian Hughes has brought participatory inquiry and action to Quaker process and decision making. In varied settings and ways we have experienced creative and transformative aspects of a process which can be adapted to Quakerly inquiry.

We invite you to explore these themes, and consider how Quakers might adapt participatory spirituality, living systems and action inquiry into forms of Quakerly inquiry. Join us in a nation-wide networked retreat on Saturday August 4. Look for details of the program and how you can participate in this issue.


Guiton, G. (2012). The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God’. San Francisco: Inner Light Books.

Heron, J. (2006). Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion. Morrisville: Lulu Press.

Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the Sacred. New York: Basic Books.

Richardson, P.T. (1996). Four Spiritualities—Expressions of Self, Expressions of Spirit: A Psychology of Contemporary Spiritual Choice. Palo Alto: Davies-Black Publishing.
Wadsworth, Y. (2010). Building in Research and Evaluation: Human Inquiry for Living Systems. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

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